Mission: Be Zen

21 Jan


Do you ever have days, dear reader, where city life just grinds you down? As Jenny G.: International Woman of Mystery, I pride myself on stamina, but I confess, there are days when it wears on me. Sometimes it’s the traffic. Or the parking. Or the weather. The constant noise and pace. The unyielding energy of commerce and construction can, at times, feel like it’s closing in on you.

It’s been one of those weeks. My dalliances in Vail proved somewhat of a debacle, but after a few days of contemplation, it was time to exercise some mind over matter and move on. Get back to work on my mission at large. As I looked at my recent list of traits to try to cultivate, one in particular called to me: it was time to find some Zen. And it couldn’t  have come a moment too soon.

The class takes place on a Wednesday night at the meditation center’s headquarters downtown. It’s a mere mile from my home, so I decide to walk, but quickly regret it. Being a pedestrian in this city can be a death-defying feat sometimes, in itself. Throngs of distracted drivers making their evening commutes nearly clip me in the crosswalks. Skateboarders in Civic Center Park yell random obscenities. A brisk wind blows in my face and chaps my ears. At last I stumble, numb and disgruntled, up the steps into the center.

It amazes me sometimes, what we can bring into our lives by simply putting intention out into the universe. I recently experienced such serendipity after making a list of traits I wish to cultivate in my transformation. A few days after noting my need for Zen, I was out in the neighborhood and happened upon a local meditation center. I was in a hurry that day, but I grabbed a flier and told myself it might come in handy. When I looked at the flier later, I noted a promising opportunity: a class simply called “Learn to Meditate.” I signed up immediately.

While it’s not my usual fare of thrill and adventure, meditation presents it’s own kind of challenge. Beyond the fringe benefits of reducing my own stress, Zen seems like a valuable addition to my International Woman of Mystery repertoire. How else to stay calm in a crisis or center myself amidst an otherwise action-packed lifestyle? The ability to find balance, seems to me, invaluable.

Inside the building, I am instantly met by a sudden warmth and calm. A large group of people fills the lobby. Apparently I’m not the only one in need of inner peace. We are instructed to take off our shoes. Help ourselves to water and snacks. Take a look around the space. Despite never having been here before, I’m taken aback by how at home I feel. The sanctuary is quaint but inviting. At the front of the room is an altar filled with large golden effigies. Various Buddhist icons and offerings to them – flowers, bowls of water, coins, a small bottle of Tabasco sauce.

It’s a mixed crowd. Mostly young urban professional types. I take a seat and begin to feel a bit nervous. Meditation is somewhat foreign territory for me. In the past I’ve had an on-again-off-again relationship with yoga. I’ve dabbled in counting my breaths and focusing on various mantras. But when it comes time to clear my mind, I find the opposite happens. I become flooded with insignificant concerns and to-do lists. I fidget and fret. I note that we haven’t yet started meditating and I’m already stressed.

A facilitator in traditional garb informs us that The Kadam (the teacher) will join us shortly. We are to stand when she enters and exits the room. A few minutes later, a small woman with a fabulous British accent takes the stage and begins to speak softly to us. What she has to say, fascinates me.

She explains to us that we and we alone are responsible for our feelings – our happiness as much as our sadness, our anger. We create our feelings with our own thoughts, but we default to blaming others for the way we feel. We then churn these feelings over and over again in our own mind until we make ourselves miserable. The teacher calls them “attachments.”  The co-worker who infuriates us with a single comment. The love interest we are convinced holds the key to our bliss, but then ultimately disappoints us. We put all our stock into outside sources of happiness but scarcely even consider shouldering the burden ourselves. We are too focused on a “Twitter-like” surface existence. The key, she says, is to go inward. We must learn to let go.

It all makes tremendous sense to me, in theory. (I’ve already got designs on adding a meditation room, to the Mystery Pad. I’ll sit for hours, like a swami on an elegant divan, behind a cloud of exotic incense.) In practice, something tells me it will be a bit more difficult. Still, the teacher assures us, it is possible. I’m skeptical, but not unwilling to try. I don’t really have a choice in the matter; the next portion of the class is a guided meditation.

We are given some basic tips for meditation novices. Start by focusing on the breath. The sensation of breath going in and out of the body. Later, she instructs, we can worry about intention. The key for now is just to breathe. Let the thoughts pass through without following their various trains. A thought should be considered a drop in the ocean, she explains. Let it exist but know that it ultimately doesn’t matter. It’s only one of many. A part of the bigger picture but not worth focusing on. If our minds wander, we are to gently guide them back to the breath.

And it works. Sort of. As in the past, I struggle not to chase down every worry in my brain and ride it into the sunset. I spend a good portion of the meditation pondering why someone gifted the Buddha with Tabasco sauce. But I persist and after awhile, it starts to feel kind of nice. I can’t escape my thoughts completely, but they slow from a rolling boil to a slow simmer somewhere in the back of my mind. I’m just starting to sink into this feeling when the teacher resumes speaking and we are guided back into everyday consciousness.

The class ends with a Q&A session, during which we are given some practical meditation advice. One young man asks simply, “How can I turn my brain off?” I too want to know the answer, but the question is met only with gentle laughter.

Some helpful hints for achieving enlightenment include: starting with five to 10 minutes per day of mind clearing exercises. Avoid distractions such as music, in order to truly clear the mind. The teacher also recommends starting with guided or group meditations, in the beginning. Patience is also a factor, I’m dismayed to learn. According to her it can take years or even decades to truly achieve thought control. But by simply practicing, we can become better partners, friends and workers. We can become better versions of ourselves.

Ironically, I’ve got a lot to think about as I leave the center. I bundle up, already dreading the walk back. But stepping back into the night, the air feels subdued. Warmer even. I make my way home in relative peace. I notice the beauty of the city lights at night and the way they almost mirror the stars in the sky. Something has shifted. My mind is calmer too. The various cogs and wheels that usually grind endlessly slow to a steady but tolerable rhythm. I return to the mystery pad and sleep like a baby.

Did I achieve Zen exactly, at my first Learn to Meditate class on a random Wednesday night? Probably not. Even so, I remain intrigued by everything there is to this concept. I’m inspired to continue my attempts at meditation. I haven’t really studied anything about Buddhism since high school geography class. It fascinated me back then. The far corners of the world already whispering to me. But I hadn’t really thought much about it since. This feels like a gentle nudge to just keep exploring. Keep investigating everything that is out there in this world and sprinkling it into my daily life as I can.

Jenny G.


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